Past and future

Thomas (Tommy) Buergenthal, who had survived the Auschwitz death march as a young boy, was reunited with his mother after the war (his father did not return from the camps). In 1951, he emigrated to the US, at the age of 17, and later became an eminent judge, serving at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. To this day, he is committed to the preservation of the camps’ memory and the protection of human rights.

121 – Auschwitz survivor Thomas Buergenthal on the lessons of the camps

[My] camp experience has certainly shaped my later professional life.[…] Over time I also gradually concluded that I had an obligation to devote my professional activities to the international protection of human rights. This sense of obligation had its source in the belief, which grew stronger as the years passed, that those of us who survived the Holocaust owe it to those who perished in it to try to improve, each in our own way, the lives of others. To me that meant working towards a world in which the rights and dignity of human beings everywhere would be protected. I also convinced myself that international human rights was the branch of the law to which I, as a lawyer and because of my Holocaust experience, would be able to make the most significant contribution. After all, I knew what it meant to be a victim of human rights violations.[…]

​ warning against new genocides

As chairman of the Committee on Conscience of the Washington-based US Holocaust Memorial Council, it was my task to relate the experience of the Holocaust to contemporary realities by warning against new genocides and crimes against humanity. By the mid-1990s our optimistic assumption that the world had seen the end of such crimes was belied by what was happening in Rwanda and in the Balkans. Before we had a chance to speak out and get the international community to act, hundreds of thousands had died. That was a familiar story to those of us who had survived the Holocaust. Although we worked very hard to get the international community to take action, it often came too late, if at all, which only went to prove that we are still far from the day when “Never again!” really means what it is supposed to mean.

Source: T. Buergenthal, A Lucky Child (London, 2010), pp. 215–16